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Owners of floating bar needed home port, so they bought popular 'Beer Can Island' off Apollo Beach

The floating, wooden deck known as the Tiki Bay Island bar has a new permanent home, its owners hope, after neighbors complained about the noise where it used to anchor. [Courtesy of Tiki Bay Island]
Published Jan. 8, 2018

TAMPA — Four partners in a tennis court-sized floating bar called Tiki Bay Island went looking for some waterfront property where they could anchor the portable business.

They ended up with a whole island, for what some might consider a bargain price — $63,650.

Of course, it has no roads or drinking water and they're required to allow the previous owner to continue dumping sand there from dredging operations.

Still, they have grand plans.

"It's crazy, isn't it?" said Russell Loomis, partners with Cole Weaver, James West and John Anthony Gadd. "We went from owning a floating tiki bar to an entire island."

If you're a boater in Tampa Bay, you might have visited the island before.

Located between Apollo Beach and MacDill Air Force Base, it's known on maps as Pine Key — 7 acres shaped like an apostrophe with sandy beaches surrounding a center of largely invasive trees and undergrowth.

But local boaters know it better as Beer Can Island, where adults have enjoyed cocktails, children have frolicked in the sand, and families have camped after dusk for decades.

The former owners took a hands-off approach, so trouble sometimes arose when alcohol flowed freely and no one worried about the rules. The new owners promise to keep it free while adding a few touches for safety.

"Everyone will be still be welcome," said Loomis, 42, a software developer from St. Petersburg. "We're not changing that."

There will be no charge for docking or camping, and visitors can still bring their own beer and food.

The partners plan to add amenities such as trash receptacles.

"We've probably hauled 50 bags of trash that was everywhere," Loomis said.

Long-term, they want to provide kayaks and paddleboard rentals and a ferry service so the island is accessible to people without boats and for anyone needing medical attention.

They may bring some security onshore, too.

"I have heard stories of people getting hurt out there and in fights," Loomis said. "We want to make sure everyone is safe."

Finally, they hope to install restrooms and have the island zoned to allow a restaurant and bar. It currently carries no zoning designation whatever, listed only as vacant acreage.

"We're not trying to build a million-dollar restaurant but can spend for something like a food trailer," Loomis said.

Pressed for a time line, Loomis demurred.

"We have a lot of work. But this is a dream come true."

Tiki Bay must go through the proper government channels, including the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission and the zoning process, to determine "what uses, if any, could be allowed on the island," Hillsborough County spokeswoman Michelle Van Dyke said via email.

Meantime, their Tiki Bay Island bar — a motorized wooden deck topped by a couple of sheds and coverings including a tiki roof, canvas triangles and umbrellas — remains anchored just off Beer Can Island.

The floating bar had been parked among some mangroves at 13300 Gandy Blvd. N in St. Petersburg. Tiki Bay co-owner Cole Weaver said the land is owned by Duke Energy, which let them dock there for free.

The bar opened in March and carries a catering license to serve private parties.

But neighboring businesses had issues with them from the start, the owner said, and filed noise complaints. The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office confirmed that deputies were sent to Tiki Bay Island twice for noise complaints.

"Now on the island, we won't have as many people who will complain," said Weaver, 32, who works in real estate and divides his time between the Tampa area and Centennial, Colo. "We just want it to have a friendly atmosphere."

Still, David Walker, Pinellas County's water and navigation program manager, said the Tiki Bay Island presented another issue — it's classified as a floating commercial structure, but was unlikely to gain the permits necessary to operate commercially.

For starters, county regulations prohibit floating structures from having roofs. Plus, a floating structure's proprietor needs to own interest in the adjoining land.

Co-owner Weaver said the partners will discuss with Hillsborough County the best option for obtaining the necessary permits, which could include turning it into a dock or bringing it on shore.

For the past few months, the partners had been seeking permanent waterfront property, but not surprisingly, found it to be expensive.

Then they thought of Beer Can Island.

According to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser website, the land has a value of $63,650 — a price within the partners' range. But the island wasn't for sale.

It was owned by Imperial Island, whose president — Carolyn Thatcher — also serves as president of the Tampa Bay Marina. Beer Can Island, it turns out, is where Tampa Bay Marina drops sand from dredging operations at its marina in Apollo Beach, and the company had no interest in changing that practice.

So Tiki Bay Island made an offer: Sell the island at its appraised worth and the partners would allow sand dumping to continue there. The deal was sealed. Imperial Island did not respond to requests for comment.

The island was once 23 acres, Loomis said, so Tiki Bay Island also owns the 16 acres now underwater. They hope the regular sand replenishment can help them with their plan to one day grow the island.

As for the name of the island, Loomis and Weaver will ask regulars what they prefer — Pine Key, Beer Can Island or Tiki Bay Island.

"I don't care what people call it," Loomis said. "I just want people to show up and have a good time."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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